In the January issue of Nature Communications, two researchers working at McGill University in Canada and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) in Spain have used a set of predictors for human well-being to project potential changes in global happiness well into the future. In the past, these predictors have often been tied to economic measurements, such as GDP, household income, unemployment and life expectancy. This new research suggests that several other, more non-material, variables have a greater correlation to human well-being than material values. These include “a relatively greater emphasis on freedom to make decisions, availability of social support, the prevalence of donating and perception of corruption”, according to the report. That doesn’t mean that economic measures don’t make a difference, they do. But the impact of increasing income, for example, on well-being, is not the only factor, and apparently not the most important.
The underlying data was provided through the World Happiness Report, conducted by Gallup’s World Poll. Gallup has been gathering data through international surveys since 2005, so has over a decade of information to compare and contrast changes in happiness both within and between countries. On a global level, the results have been fairly steady, with a slight rise in negative evaluations of life. While there was a global collective downward trend (and subsequent rebound) in happiness around the time of the Global Financial Crisis, much of the more recent trends can be attributed to several hotspots around the world, including a more negative feeling about happiness in India, and a lot of the destruction and infighting in the Middle East and North Africa. This has been offset by gains made by Eastern Europeans as their lives converge with the Western European countries.
The recent research published in Nature Communications, titled “Feasible Future Global Scenarios for Human Life Evaluations” by Christopher Barrington-Leigh and Eric Galbraith, took the Gallup data and looked at the impacts of these variables, both material and non-material, on the future, attempting to predict possible outcomes of global happiness as far out as 2050. Per John F. Helliwell, one of the chief editors on the World Happiness Report, “happiness can change, and does change, according to the quality of the society in which people live”. This latest research confirms that quality of society matters, with the greatest swings in happiness, either to the positive or to the negative coming from non-material factors. This has significant implications for public policy. The current focus on GDP and increasing income is too narrow. Government resources would be better spent on social aims. “Our results show that the greatest benefits to be potentially made over the next decades, as well as the most dangerous pitfalls to be avoided, lie in the domain of social fabric,” the researchers conclude.
There is an interesting parallel, at a more micro-economic level, to the workplace, where reviews and salary surveys suggest that monetary considerations are not the primary driver behind employee sentiment. According to Glassdoor, the company ratings website, “it is the culture and values of the organization, followed closely by the quality of senior leadership and the career opportunities at the company. Among the six workplace factors examined, compensation and benefits were consistently rated among the least important factors of workplace happiness.” That said, similar to the recent McGill University research, a Princeton University study from 2010 did suggest material (e.g. monetary) benefits do provide certain levels of happiness, but only up to a point. And in both the corporate world, and in society as a whole, non-material factors play a crucial role that needs to be recognised across the business and political sprectrum to help build more happiness and well-being into people’s lives.
Featured Images: McGill University Research